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This is another essay that came about while writing, re-writing, and deleting nearly 3,000 words in an attempt to sort out my thoughts about Shiny Happy People. Follow along to see if I ever get them sorted.
“Deconstruction” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in Evangelical Christian circles. I’m still Evangelical-adjacent enough to hear it quite often, but I realize that there are probably a lot of people who have never even heard this word in this context. Deconstruction is a term that is often used when asking people if they are still Christians. For example: “Have you deconstructed?”
It’s a way to gauge if someone who has clearly left a specific Christian church/faith tradition is still a Believer, AKA Christian. This question is often followed up with “how to you plan to reconstruct?” or “have you reconstructed?” When people hear me talk about leaving my Fundamental Independent Baptist and ATI upbringing, I nearly always get asked the above questions.
I really don’t know if people outside of Evangelical Christianity are worried about deconstruction, but go to any mainstream Christian website and you’ll find articles with titles like “The Church Needs Reformation, Not Deconstruction” (Christianity Today), “Why We should Not Redeem ‘Deconstruction’” (The Gospel Coalition), and “Deconstruction: A look at a popular and polarizing concept” (Focus on the Family). I get their concern. An article in the New York Times this week highlighted that up to thirty-percent of people who self-identify as Christian don’t attend church. Churches are losing members by the droves and a lot of church leaders believe it has to do with deconstruction. But does it?
Deconstruction is actually a term borrowed from literary analysis and means, in that context, “a method of critical analysis … which emphasizes the internal workings of language and conceptual systems.” In laymen’s terms, it basically means you look at the words people use and the context of those words as a way to better understand what they’re trying to say. Wikipedia quite adequately reflects this connection with its definition of Christian deconstruction: “a Christian phenomenon where people unpack, rethink and examine their belief systems.” The process of deconstruction is simply taking a step back, looking at what you were taught, and deciding what is the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Taking a closer look, however, causes a lot of hand-wringing among Christians. Deconstruction has become such a loaded word that people are making up new terms to describe their faith journeys. Jinger Duggar Vuolo in her book “Becoming Free Indeed: My Story of Disentangling Faith from Fear” makes a point to specifically say that she has not deconstructed. Instead, she says that she has “disentangled” the problematic parts of her faith from the non-problematic ones. This splitting of hairs is classic Fundamentalist behavior. She has deconstructed whether she knows it or not. She just doesn’t want people in her church or family to think she’s not a Christian like them anymore. Christians are that afraid of deconstruction.
Just this week, WORLD magazine, a conservative Christian news magazine, brought deconstruction into the conversation in their review of “Shiny Happy People”. The review accurately acknowledges the terrible things portrayed in the documentary, but then claims that the series “simultaneously conflates legitimate aspects of evangelical Christianity with the misguided systems of the IBLP and ultimately heads toward faith deconstruction.” I chuckled when I read this sentence. As someone who grew up in IBLP, I believe IBLP is one of those situations where you really should throw the baby out with the bathwater, but I was not surprised to see WORLD invoking the bogeyman of deconstruction.
The next paragraph in the review gives a lengthy description of how WORLD defines deconstruction:
Deconstruction often results among Christians not discipled in personal discernment, and who are thus easily manipulated to believe that what they experienced in their understanding of Christianity is the norm. This was certainly the case within the IBLP. When people emerge from the strictures of fundamentalism, they often think everything they knew was a lie. Thus, even the good parts of faith are severed.
The audacity. I was definitely discipled in “personal discernment”. My parents and my faith leaders talked ad nauseam about how superior my education was and how learning character qualities would give me a level of discernment far above my non-believing peers. Yet, they are right; I thought everything I was taught was a lie, I did deconstruct, and I was manipulated. What they get wrong is that it wasn’t the deconstructionists who manipulated me. It was the people who were supposed to be my spiritual leaders.
My deconstruction journey, as it was, began while I was a student at Crown College of the Bible. We were in an all-student meeting where the president/pastor addressed the concerning rise of Calvinism among the student body. (I don’t want to get into why this was such a big deal, just know that my church believed Calvinists were not true Christians.) After the address, one of my classmates asked a completely legitimate question about why there couldn’t be a campus-wide discussion about the topic. I sat there and watched as my childhood pastor/college president shut him down completely and forcefully. No questions allowed. We were Armenians, not Calvinists. That’s how it was and if you wanted to question that you could leave. He literally asked his aide to get between him and the student so the student couldn’t access him and left before anyone could say anything else.
This encounter shook me. As I already mentioned, I had been taught that what I believed was the capital-t truth, that it was rock-solid, that I was more enlightened than regular Christians – so why then were we not allowed to debate? We were at a Bible college for god’s sake. Wouldn’t that be the ideal place to discuss matters of faith? I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the beginning of my deconstruction. Why? Because I started asking questions. A faith that could not withstand questions was not a faith that I wanted to have.
I was just asked last week if I’d deconstructed and what my plans were for reconstruction. It had been a minute since someone had asked me and I had to think about it before answering. I understand the impulse to ask, but asking the question belies the motivation. The only people I know who ask this question are either in the early stages of deconstruction themselves or are people who already know where they stand. I get it, but it’s a term that doesn’t mean much to me anymore.
What I believe (or don’t) has been more than ten years in the making, I can’t sum it up and tie it with a bow labeled “deconstruction”, even if deconstruction is technically what I have done. I will always live in the messy middle of my faith. I will always be trying to learn more about the world around me. I will always strive to be understanding of other people’s beliefs. I will always keep asking questions. Who knows, maybe a lot fewer people would be leaving their faith traditions if those traditions were more open to the process of unpacking, rethinking and re-examining what they say they believe.